ADVENTURES IN GAME TIME: City Hall Edition

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Back in January, when the temperatures here in Los Angeles were hitting a frigid 64 degrees, I found myself staving off the Arctic winds by holing up with my laptop and engaging in some warmth-inducing retail therapy. One of my purchases was the humble game City Hall, designed by Michael Keller and published by Tasty Minstrel Games. I had previously read some encouraging things about this game — enough to make my frostbitten finger use its last sensation to tap the One-Click-Purchase button. It also helped that the game had been marked down to about $15. For the price of a stiff Bloody Mary, I had nabbed myself a brand new board game. The future was mine.

But why was City Hall so cheap? For starters, the game is ugly. Like, really ugly. We’re talking a color scheme that mixes forest green with copper with champagne. And don’t get me started with the blocky fonts on the board. It’s as if “Chicago” and “Charcoal” had a bastard love child. If pretty hurts, City Hall definitely has never experienced pain.

The unfortunately reality is that people generally stay away from ugly games, especially if they’re ugly AND about city bureaucracy. Out of the gate, poor City Hall had two strikes against its marketability. And then came the death knell: a lackluster review from one of an influential board game critic, who most likely turned off wide swaths of the purchasing audience. Mix those factors together, and it’s no surprise that this $60 game had been marked down to less than a twenty-dollar bill.

This leads to the inevitable question: is City Hall an ugly duckling? Or should it be voted out of office? (Yes, I mixed metaphors).The whole point of City Hall is that players take on the roles of aspiring politicians who must simultaneously increase their approval ratings while attracting more and more people to the fair boroughs of Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn. When the game ends, population and popularity are factored together (multiplied, to be specific), and whoever has the highest total (with a few boosts from local endorsements) wins the game.

How this all unfolds is the crux of the game. You see, in order to bring more people into the city, you’ll have to develop plots of land into housing, factories, office towers, or parks. Placing certain zones next to each other causes the population to increase at different rates (and occasionally decrease), and as the city grows, players will also gain approval and money (often at the cost of each other). And so, on a broad level, one must develop the city in order to get the best advantage during the end game election.

Here’s the thing: developing New York City requires more than just laying down a few simple tiles. There are palms to be greased and backs to be scratched. You’re never going to be able to build that sweet little park in the middle of Astoria unless you throw around some serious influence. This is the heart of City Hall: jockeying for power inside the political machine.

Nearly every action in the game requires the use of political influence, which serves as a secondary currency to money. Want to take over some land? Make sure you have enough clout or else one of your opponents will steal the action away from you. Or maybe that’s what you wanted all along. You see, every time you select an action (or, in the game’s parlance, send a worker to an office), a small auction begins. Players around the table bid influence to take your action, and you can ultimately decide to accept the influence and forgo the action, or you can match the highest bid and spend that influence to do the action as originally planned. In other words, it’s a big, massive mindf–k.

If you’re in the market to gain influence (or perhaps drain it from someone else), you’ll find yourself taking actions that you believe others will be highly motivated to pay for. But then inevitably at other times, you’ll want to take an action that you desperately need, which then puts the burden on the other players to up the influence ante to either screw up your plans or bleed you dry should you attempt to match the highest bid. It’s a game of anticipation, estimation, and getting into people’s heads. No wonder why I’m so bad at it.

But at the same time it’s all so perfectly thematic. Isn’t this exactly what we imagine City Hall to be: trading favors to gain political influence and vice versa? This game captures that shady backroom dealmaking aspect of local politics in a way that’s totally clever and fun, and that extends amusingly into the seven actions players must choose from on their turn:

  • The Tax Assessor allows players to earn money by taxing the populace. The more people you’ve brought into the city and the more buildings you’ve erected, the more money you’ll get — especially if you’ve invested in factories and office towers. If you really need some cash, you can always triple your tax income, but at the cost of your approval rating, which will subsequently drop. Another smart thematic touch.
  • The Surveyor allows people to purchase a plot of land in the city for future development. The deeds come out randomly, but should you exert some political influence, you can choose exactly which plot of land you’d like to buy. Think of it as strong-arming some local real estate developers to invest in Bushwick. Nevertheless, you then get to use some of that hard-earned taxpayer money to buy a parcel of land on the board for future development.
  • The Campaign Manager lets players increase their approval, often for a pretty penny. This is another sly use of taxpayer money, and it cannot be overlooked.
  • The Lobbyist allows players to pay money for more political influence or, alternatively, spend influence to accumulate money. Yup, that’s pretty much what I’d expect a lobbyist to do.
  • A visit to the Zoning Board allows players to develop the plots of land they’ve already purchased. This means placing the aforementioned housing, factory, tower, or park on the board. Depending on the land parcel’s location, all sorts of things may happen. For instance, if you were to place a housing tile next to another housing tile, both buildings would see adjustments in their star ratings, which is how this game symbolizes land value (an important metric that I’ll get back to). A housing tile can accommodate up to five stars, and when housing tiles neighbor each other, they each gain two stars.

    Just to add some trickiness to this, there’s the matter of factories. They actually cause adjacent residential zones to lose stars, but they do bring in revenue, and we all love revenue. There are also parks, which never increase in land value; however, they cause all adjacent tiles to gain stars AND, more importantly, they raise your approval rating.

    One other fun aspect of the Zoning Board: as buildings go down on the board, the game gets prettier. That’s because the art on these tiles is actually quite lovely, and as they take over the city, they manage to hide the noxious colors of the game board.

  • The Deputy Mayor’s office is pretty simple: whoever takes this action gets to go first in player order — an unglamorous but important power.
  • Lastly, we have the Health Commissioner — a vital action that no player should ever get a monopoly on. This is where all your hard work building the city pays off. When the Health Commissioner’s office kicks in, all players must add up the total land value of their buildings (ie. add up their stars), and whoever has the highest number gets to advance farthest on the city population track (with second and third place moving a few notches up too). There’s some other funny business with this office, but it’s not worth getting into here. The point is that the Health Commissioner is where players translate land value into population, and don’t forget that population is integral to your final score calculation. That’s why this spot is one of the most important ones on the board [cue the dramatic organ]. It’s also the least thematic action (the Health Commissioner increases population? Seems like a stretch), but I’ll let it pass.

So, just to recap, use the Tax Assessor to gain money; spend that money to either improve your approval rating (Campaign Manager), gain political influence (Lobbyist), or buy plots of land (Surveyor); use the Zoning Board to increase land values (and sometimes approval); turn that land value into population with the Health Commissioner; and then circle back to turn that population and those buildings into money with the Tax Assessor again.

Of course, with a game like this, nothing works in such a tidy little cycle, and with the constant auctioning of actions, there’s never a guarantee you’ll even get to do any of the things you set out to do at the start of a round. However, this is the fun — and glorious frustration — of it all. Just like politics.

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Some of the money cards. The game may be ugly, but these money cards are pretty cool.

At any given time, there are always a million things to accomplish, and City Hall is all about prioritizing and re-prioritizing on the fly. You only have so much influence to spend; so you better damn well make sure you use it on the most important action.

The execution of the actions isn’t nearly as fun as the jockeying, which is why City Hall is different from most other city-building games. In a title like Suburbia, the excitement comes from placing a fun tile like a museum or an airport or a SLAUGHTERHOUSE into the urban sprawl and seeing what marvelous things happen. However, the actual act of doing that action is pretty mundane: just pay some money to the bank and acquire the tile.

City Hall flips the equation. All the intrigue comes ahead of the action, with the subsequent tile-laying aspect being much less multi-layered. There are only four types of buildings in the game, compared to a beast like Suburbia, which feels like it has 400. That’s probably why City Hall has caught some flack for having a throwaway city-building dimension to it; although, truthfully, I’m perfectly happy with it. I repeatedly found myself struggling with indecision as I weighed the pros and cons of building a park versus a tower, for instance. The building tiles may be basic, but they create complex choices. That’s not to say I would spurn more variety. The game would certainly be enriched by a wider selection of building types, especially if they had unique effects à la Suburbia. Maybe that’s something an expansion could address.

But alas, I fear there will never be an expansion. Some mediocre reviews and unpleasant board art seem to have relegated City Hall to the bowels of the board game hobby, and it’s truly unfortunate. This is a FUN game full of direct player interaction, tough choices, strong thematic elements, and silly table talk, especially for players who like to assume the roles of seedy politicians. This is a game that deserves attention.

With two players, I can’t imagine City Hall shining as brightly since the auctioning mechanic would be severely hampered, but otherwise, this is a fantastic game, made all the more fantastic by its bargain-bin price. I can’t wait to play it again.

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